Early Days of Corporate Email: Selling the Idea

Curator's note:  This is the second in a series of commentaries by Ralph Ehlers, discussing the early days of email implementation. This commentary describes his experience selling email to user communities. Seems hard to believe, but in the early days, this was hard. His observations on why managers typically resisted email are especially fascinating.

When my company (BBC Switzerland) merged with ASEA of Sweden to form ABB in 1987, management saw a definite need to improve on internal communications in the new large multinational organization. That had two aspects: technology implementation and user behavior. So the IT organization was in an interesting position:

The latter meant nothing less than actually changing employee behavior. At the time this was a really new thing to do. At least in the world of large organizations, IT had so far been something which worked somewhere in the background, used by specialists or in the context of very specific business processes. It was not used by employees at large and at their discretion for general communication.

Different Marketing Approaches

What was required was internal marketing. With predominantly technical or scientific backgrounds, my colleagues and I were amateurs at such an activity. Nevertheless it was fun to engage in it. All kinds of ideas for activities and campaigns were developed and tried.

Experiences were also shared between different companies in email user groups. They were another new development. Mostly organized by the product vendors, they brought together email administrators from different organizations. A predominant subject at their meetings were reports about activities to increase email use.

In ABB we tried by and large three different approaches.

  • The ‘democratic’ approach. We addressed employees at large with flyers and other information material, ran booths at cantinas to demonstrate the system, and gave talks at all kinds of internal meetings and conventions and the like.
  • User groups with special needs. Such groups were generally interested, but it was rather difficult to identify them. On the other hand such groups made for good success stories.
  • Making the hierarchy work  for email. We looked for managers who were using email and who had an interest in their people using it as well.

All approaches worked to some extent. At the beginning of the 1990s we had a coverage of about 20% of all employees, on the mainframe MEMO email system.

A strong inhibitor for growth was the ‘chicken-and-egg-problem’: if my colleagues don’t use it then I am not interested in using it either. Another strong inhibitor was concern for cost. My experience during the entire decade was that it was almost impossible to ‘sell’ email internally if it came with a price tag.

What worked in favor of the spread of email were the two features of  directory and calendar. They were a strength of our host-based MEMO system.  In particular the advantages of keeping an electronic calendar with the functionality of booking meetings with many people simultaneously were so obvious that this came close to be the long sought after ‘killer application’. And indeed, calendaring was the first big collaborative application for all users.

Resistance by Managers

The corporate hierarchy actually worked both ways. There were many managers with an innovative spirit, who encouraged or urged their people to start using email and in particular calendaring.

However, most managers turned out to be reluctant. I believe that many saw a threat to their hierarchical position, power and status. They feared loss of control if the rank and file could directly exchange valuable information without passing it across their bosses desks. For a large majority of managers typing messages themselves at a keyboard was an outlandish idea--that was secretarial work. There was also fear of personal embarrassment and of status loss if subordinates would notice that they were much better at using the system than their boss. Often this was more or less successfully hidden behind the secretaries, who operated their boss's mailboxes.

Of course, these barriers were different in different industries. I still recall how impressed I was during a visit to IBM Germany around 1990, when I learned that their general manager used to spend several hours per day working with their PROFS office communication system.  When I joined F. Hoffmann-La Roche, a pharmaceutical multinational company in 1994, I found that the IT boss did read emails on the screen, but then used to print them, made his handwritten comments on them and let his secretary send them back by internal mail.

Communications Unbound

From my current perspective, I believe that the biggest impact of email on the corporate world – and on organizations in general -  was the change in people behavior. Direct, unrestricted  communication between employees has become the general way of corporate life, making it distinctly different from pre-email times. I believe that had a strong impact on the way in which business processes and entire businesses could be organized and improved during the last two decades. But it also certainly had an impact on how people perceive and organize their business and social relations in an organization.


To be continued…


About the Author

Ralph Ehlers graduated with a PhD in Physics from RWTH Aachen, Germany, in 1981. Read full bio here.

One Comment

  1. Nigel
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Permalink

    I remember a great example of that hierarchical issue. I was working on X.500 in ALL-IN-1 around 1990 and a question was raised by a customer who was a very well-known UK based bank. What they wanted to know was whether we could suppress first names in the display when a manger was looked up in the directory by a lesser being. That is, they should just be shown as “Mr Jones”, for example, to subordinates, but “John Jones” to peers.

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  1. […] The early days of e-mail saw it coined a phenomenon as well, although fairly quickly corporates saw it as an opportunity to improve internal communications; however it was not without its own fair share of ‘flat-earthers.’ Early adopters of e-mail realised soon that its purpose was to enrich their business rather than profit directly off of it; yet there were those that saw the potential for it as a marketing tool. […]

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